Reacting to pain: self-compassion or self-sabotage

At the end of April we experienced the unexpected loss of our cat, Emjai. He’d been with us 12 years since he was a kitten and it felt all too soon to say goodbye. He was like a family member to us, along with our other cat, Baby Girl. And it’s clear my husband and I are not the only ones grieving.
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When we came home from the animal hospital that night, we sat in the living room and spontaneously combed through our memories of him. We laughed and remembered how much love and joy he brought to our household. It would not be the same with him gone.
Honestly, this sucks and I debated whether to write about it. What prompted me was that in dealing with the loss of Emjai, I realized that I had a choice. It’s the same choice we have when faced with any painful experience, large or small.
When we’re in pain, our tendency can be to either lose ourselves in it or push it down and cover up. In the first case, the pain eclipses your life or outlook. It’s the only thing you can see, it’s the only thing you can think about. And, it often leads to unhealthy behaviors to self-soothe. In the second scenario, you pretend it doesn’t matter, that it’s no big deal. Denial. This, too, can produce sabotaging behaviors and ultimately whatever we’ve pushed down comes back up in spades.
I often work with my clients on feeling their pain. It’s okay to be sad, discouraged or disappointed. We talk through it together. And they can respond with self-compassion and a plan for moving through it. This is especially important for the day-to-day pains, like unmet needs and disappointments (in ourselves and others), that can derail us from making the choices we really want, ultimately bringing more pain.
Pain is a natural part of being human. It’s also what allows us to really know what is good and appreciate it. The morning after we lost Emjai, my husband said to me, “I don’t want to focus on being sad. I want to think about all the good stuff.” I was grateful as I had woken up with a heavy heart and didn’t know how we would react and respond in the days and weeks ahead.  Since then, we’ve balanced sadness with laughter. We’ve devised rituals and ways of being that help us to mourn and remember, to be happy and move forward. We still miss him, yet he’s still “with us.”

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